Riding the Arbitration Bicycle: The Importance of Achieving Balance in Your Arbitration Career – Washington Arbitration Week , on 29 November 2022, in Washington DC, US

22 May, 2023

Authors: Michelle Vasco, Munia El Harti Alonso

The panel Riding the Arbitration Bicycle: The Importance of Achieving Balance in Your Arbitration Career took place on 29 November 2022, in the context of the Third Edition of the Washington Arbitration Week. The moderator for this discussion was Amanda Lee, arbitrator, consultant at Costigan King, founder of ARBalance and Careers in arbitration and member of ArbitralWomen’s Advisory Council, who candidly introduced the purpose of the talk as ‘finding better ways to do what we love’.

An Empirical View on Gender Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition in the Legal Profession

The first panellist was Niki Irish, Outreach and Education Coordination of the DC Bar, head of the Lawyer Assistance Program that focuses on raising awareness on reducing the stigma of mental health and addiction issues. Niki shared the D.C. Bar recent findings about wellbeing issues, published in 2021. The outcome stemming of the data was startling: one in four women at the time of the survey were seriously contemplating leaving the profession for reasons related to mental health and burnout reasons. Stress, depression, anxiety, and hazardous drinking related to work also showed important incidence, especially in men.

Niki shared data showing that workplace environments matter. Lawyers who feel valued do better physically and mentally and stay longer in their firms. Also, connecting with the purpose behind their work helps lawyers do better in terms of mental wellbeing. Thus, engagement, network support, regular feedback and actively helping one’s community are relevant steps towards mental health. Actions taken by the D.C. Bar to revert the alarming data include an online women’s support group for students and lawyers, as well as encouraging the inclusion of wellbeing topics in law schools’ programmes.

The Balanced Concept of ‘Lagom’ and Light at the End of the Tunnel

The second panellist was ArbitralWomen member Kirsten Teo, a Singaporean solicitor, special legal consultant at Dechert, D.C. office, in the commercial and investment arbitration practice, especially in transactions related to Asia.

Kirsten stressed the importance of perspective in the early stages of the international arbitration career. Performing the more nitty-gritty part of the work can be overwhelming and hard to value. However, it is essential to realise it is part of the training for a career that is a marathon and not a sprint. It is key to look ahead and not get caught up in the task. Perhaps this perspective is not only applicable to younger lawyers, but to all lawyers in the long term. In Kirsten’s words: ‘Don’t burn yourself out, it is not a sprint’. She also suggested embracing the Swedish concept of ‘lagom’, which means ‘just right’. Not too much, not too little. That is a good reminder that one’s lifestyle must be moderated to be sustainable, if one wants a career that is long-lasting and meaningful.

The IBA Well Being Task Force Findings Takeaways

Manel Atserias Luque took the floor after Kirsten. He is a lawyer form Barcelona and a member of the IBA wellbeing task force.

Manel pointed out the main reasons for keeping mental health struggles under the hat: fear to be treated differently, employers who do not recognise these issues sufficiently, and fear of not being taken seriously. Hence, fundamental steps to be taken comprise raising awareness, implementing mental health wellbeing policies, training, and changing the legal culture.

Munia El Harti Alonso, Of Counsel in international arbitration at Robalino Law Firm, PHD candidate at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, ArbitralWomen member and Young ICCA representative for Latin America, commented on the IBA Task Force giving a perspective on young lawyers. She noted that the latest 2022 IBA Young Lawyers Report indicates 33% of young lawyers will leave previous positions in law firms to practise in another field in law. Also, one fifth of the surveyed young lawyers would leave law altogether. This report identifies the exhaustion experienced by young lawyers and relates it to the billable hour system used to measure performance. It is of paramount importance for young lawyers and leaders to critically rethink this modus operandi that is causing an important turnover within the profession.

Kirsten furthered the discussion, providing some practical insights regarding the international arbitration practice. She emphasised the cross-border nature of international arbitration, which often means time zone differences and multiple jurisdictions. This could be part of the reason why stress levels are tremendous in this field, especially around hearings and filings.

Kirsten however stressed the cyclical nature of the workload, which puts certain balance into the equation. In times of less intensity, it is important to capitalise on the diminished workload to take a break.

Diversity and Business Development for Women and Young Lawyers

Munia elaborated on Business development (BD) as part of professional diversity in international arbitration, suggesting a solution to the diversity challenges the legal community is facing. She stressed the challenges of balancing academia, BD and practice in law firms, given that activities other than achieving the minimum billable hours are essential for lawyers’ personal and professional development. On diversity, she stressed that competitive law firms should seek lawyers with diverse profiles to expand their talent pool. She added a layer to the conceptualisation of diversity, through the scope of ‘professional diversity’ in international arbitration. This means inclusion of academics, arbitrators and other ‘hats’ that do not fall within a linear counsel career. Academia, for instance, fosters expertise and exposure through publishing, speaking and organising conferences. These activities are not ‘just’ academia, but provide exposure and are BD beneficial for both the professionals involved and their law firms. This is the main takeaway from the article ‘Lawyers and Non Lawyers in International Arbitration: Discovering Diminishing Diversity’, published in 2021, which cites numerous surveys to highlight the lack of diversity of professional backgrounds, and ‘more specifically the dominance nowadays of those with practising lawyer positions or primary careers’.

To this presentation, Amanda sharply added that law firms want the best talent, and perhaps the price of getting it is accepting that associates have lives and require time to develop their talents outside of everyday work.

Concluding, prior to an enriched hybrid networking session, the Triple and Quintuple Ps paradigm was spelled out.

Triple (or Quintuple) Ps: Priorities, People, Protocols (Permission and Pausing)

Kirsten suggested keeping in mind a ‘triple P’ approach, in Amanda Lee’s words, towards work: setting Priorities for life at home and at work, that can change and evolve; reaching out to People and support networks; and setting Protocols regarding disconnection times.

Niki added two ‘Ps’ to Kirsten’s and Amanda’s insight: Permission to taking care of ourselves and being compassionate with our needs; and Pausing to pay attention to the physical and emotional signs that show where we are and how we feel.

Submitted by Michelle Vasco, Senior Associate, and Munia El Harti Alonso, ArbitralWomen member, Of Counsel, with Robalino Law, in Quito, Ecuador, and Paris, France, respectively.